Zachary Ranftle's mother let him walk to school for the first time this fall, giving the 12-year-old a taste of independence.
But after a driver with a suspended license struck and killed the Valley Stream seventh-grader Thursday, his grief-stricken mother agonized over the freedom she gave him, relatives said yesterday.
"She even said to me last night on the phone, 'Maybe it was a bad idea. I shouldn't have let him walk to school,' " recalled Evelyn Ranftle, 71, of Glen Oaks, the boy's grandmother.
Hours after the tragedy, Ranftle tried to console Kathleen Flood, Zachary's mother, who drove him to elementary school.
"You can't feel guilty," Ranftle said she told her.
The boy's uncle, Paul Ranftle, 36, of Glen Oaks, said he thought walking to school was a good idea.
"It builds you up as a man in the future, and the schools usually encourage things like that," he said.
Zachary was on his way to Memorial Junior High School -- about a mile from his home -- when he was hit by a GMC Yukon at 7:17 a.m. as he attempted to cross west from West Merrick Road onto South Franklin Avenue, Nassau police said.
The driver, Austin Soldano, 29, of Seaford, remained at the scene. His license had been suspended due to an arrest in August, which includes a drunken driving charge, police said.
Soldano's lawyer, Robert Brunetti of Mineola, said his client wasn't aware that his license had been suspended.
Soldano was charged with second- and third-degree aggravated unlicensed operation of a vehicle, both misdemeanors, and operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license, a violation. He was released on bail of $10,000 bond or $5,000 cash.
Employees at the Lynbrook auto repair shop where Soldano works declined to comment Friday. He could not be reached for comment at his home.
Paul Ranftle and other relatives, meanwhile, brought flowers, a red heart-shaped balloon and a brown teddy bear to the crash scene. They hugged one another and shed more tears.
"All he had in him was good," Ranftle said.
At Zachary's school, a moment of silence was held, and students were encouraged to celebrate his young life. Students and teachers made posters in his memory, including one with the words "RIP Zachary."
"He was a cool kid," said Jordan Grant, 12, who attended elementary school with Zachary and said they were "best friends."
The day before the accident, Jordan remembered how Zachary playfully grabbed his school binders and made him give chase.
Relatives described Zachary as a kindhearted boy who'd volunteer to take out the garbage or hang drapes at his grandmother's home. The Little Leaguer learned to cook with his Boy Scout troop, and was proud of being able to prepare meatloaf and chicken, the family said.
Zachary has two brothers, 8 and 1. His father died in 2006 of pneumonia.